People often assume that prisoners deserve to be locked up. Societies have laws and penalties for breaking those laws. It is as simple as that.

For most of us, it would be unthinkable to believe that some people are destined to commit crime. But could it be that our rational, individualistic societies leave some members with no choice but to become criminals?

In the last four decades, the number of prisoners in Ireland grew from 600 to 5,500. The majority of these people are unemployed, unskilled men, with little or no literacy skills. They are addicted to alcohol and drugs, and many have mental and physical illnesses. They are alienated and stigmatised.

Social inequality paves way to prison

If we believe John Lonergan, who worked in the Irish prison system since 1968 and was chief governor in Mountjoy for 23 years, the failures of the government and our society as a whole have led to the rise of prison population.

Lonergan points to social inequality as the main point to growing criminality. He says, ‘‘Those on severe margins benefited in no way during the Celtic Tiger years. They had no education; they had no ability to tap into the opportunities. Those on the periphery lost ground and were left behind’’. He goes further, predicting that ‘‘when the economy recovers, the rich will continue to demand; and will get more’’.

The last two decades of economic liberalisation led to a widening gap between haves and have-nots. Those at the bottom have little or no say about their future. This detachment from the mainstream society means that people feel left out and in those circumstances tend to lose respect and loyalty. Many Irish institutions lost credibility in the eyes of those  at the bottom of the social ladder.

Prison conditions reflect on all of us

Nelson Mandela once said: ‘‘No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones’’. In that respect, a lot could be said about Irish society. No one group can benefit, while the majority silently suffers. Back a dog up in a corner – it’s going to bite.

Author: Vaida Balbieriute

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